Hard Times For French Socialists

They managed to elect the first female mayor of Paris … and that’s about it. Consider:

At a second round of voting on March 30th, Mr. [Francois] Hollande’s Socialist Party lost over 150 towns, most of them to the opposition centre-right. … Among the more dramatic losses were Toulouse, a city in the southwest that it had thought was safe, Roubaix  and Tourcoing, two industrial cities in the north with a deep left-wing heritage, and a string of other cities, including Amiens, Caen, Tours, Reims and Limoges, held by the left since 1912. Even some towns in the Paris region, which had been governed by Communist Party since the second world war, such as Villejuif, swung to the right.

The centre-right UMP was the primary beneficiary of this disillusion, and of a high abstention rate. Overall, the second-round result gave the combined mainstream right 46 percent of the vote, compared with 40 percent for the Socialists, Greens and other left-wing parties. This translates into 572 mayors for the right in towns of a population over 10,000, to 349 for the left, reversing the outcome in 2008.

Robert Zaretsky calls the far-right Front National “the real winner” of the elections:

The party captured only around 5 percent of the popular vote, but presented candidates in only 600 of the 32,000 towns and cities that held elections over the weekend. This indisputable victory not only could lead to the capture of several city halls, but perhaps more importantly, has already redefined France’s political landscape.

He elaborates:

While no one has suggested shooting illegal immigrants from Romania or North Africa, the FN long ago called for the expulsion of three million “illegals” from France. More recently, FN leader Marine Le Pen has spoken about an “Arab occupation” of many French cities, while Florian Philippot, the FN candidate who is poised to win the mayor’s race in the Alsatian city of Forbach, insists on the term “invasion.” In response, the mainstream French right has adopted the same language, sometimes with even greater ferocity. … becoming the leader of the UMP, Jean-François Copé has upped the ideological ante, asserting that the children of illegal immigrants born on French soil should not automatically become French citizens. The so-called droitisation, or pushing to the right, of the UMP’s discourse, is clearing the ground for tacit alliances with the FN.

Dan Bilefsky also examines the National Front’s sudden emergence as a major third party:

“The French Far-Right Isn’t Scary Anymore and That’s the Problem,” declared an English-language blog in the French daily Liberation.

Renée Kaplan, the blog’s writer, noted that many were mortified by the realization that the tendency by the French intelligentsia to dismiss the National Front as marginalized pariahs no longer corresponded to reality. She wondered ruefully: “Maybe this France — a real voting part of which supports a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-European, nationalist party — actually is France today.”

The telegenic Ms. Le Pen has sought to rebrand the National Front as mainstream by distancing herself from her father, the founder of the party, and a man widely viewed as anti-Semitic. She has even vowed to take legal action against anyone who characterized the party as “extreme right.” Yet the National Front has cleaved to its mantra of France for the French. Last summer, Mr. Le Pen called the Roma community in Nice, in the south of France, “smelly” and “rash-inducing.”

Meanwhile, Gregory Viscusi and Helene Fouquet view the election as “a referendum on Hollande’s almost two years in power,” noting that the current president is the least popular one to hold office in more than half a century. Alexander Stille blames Hollande’s mismanagement of the economy for his party’s poor showing:

The reasons for voter dissatisfaction with the Hollande government are not hard to find. … When he came into office, in May of 2012, he listed unemployment, economic stagnation, and declining economic competitiveness as his highest priorities. France’s economy actually shrunk slightly in both 2012 and 2013, still mired in the recession from which most other industrialized nations have begun to emerge. France’s unemployment rate is now at about eleven per cent, even higher than the approximately 9.5 per cent rate when Hollande came into office. Hollande seems to have tinkered around the edges—fulfilling some of his campaign promises, such as hiring more teachers and increasing scholarships and jobs programs for younger people—but he has lost sight of the bigger picture. He ended up taxing far more than the richest strata of French society to pay for policies that failed to deliver significant results. Hollande seems incapable of articulating a vision of what he wants for France and how he intends to achieve it.

Veronique de Rugy zooms in on how grand gouvernement contributes to France’s economic problems:

France’s tax haul stands at more than 45 percent of GDP-one of the highest in the Eurozone. Sarkozy did implement some small but beneficial pension reforms, which Hollande promptly overturned and replaced with a measly and insufficient increase in the pension contribution period. Not only is the new president unconcerned with the sustainability of the French pension system, but he refuses to follow the example of Europe’s periphery by liberalizing French labor and product markets.

Hollande’s commitment to big government hasn’t won him any friends. The French rank him as the least popular president of the Fifth Republic, and young people are voting with their feet. According to the data from French consulates in London and Edinburgh, the number of French people living in London is probably somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. That’s more than the number of French people living in Bordeaux, Nantes, or Strasbourg.

She has little faith, however, that any party will attempt to shrink the state:

[W]hile François Hollande and his irresponsible and backward socialist policies and rhetoric have accelerated France’s economic demise, in addition to several waves of brain drain, right-wing presidents Sarkozy and Chirac pursued many of the same policies when they were in power. Under Sarkozy, spending on everything from special interests to social welfare went up, while French people were subjected to over 200 new tax increases. While he made some gestures toward increasing the retirement age, he didn’t do much to free the labor market from regulatory asphyxiation.

John Lloyd sheds more light on the domestic scene:

At a time when many other European economies are showing some growth, output in France’s manufacturing and service sectors is contracting. Unemployment is rising, with a quarter of those under age 25 jobless. A recent report showed an uptick in manufacturing, but the country has a long way to go to make up for the declines of the recent past. …   Disenchantment with the EU is now sweeping France. The mainstream parties, where the official position has long been supportive of the EU, are challenged to be more skeptical. The liberal political philosopher Pierre Manent writes that “life for European citizens is determined more and more not by the familiar national debate … but by the outcome of a European process that is much less comprehensible.” This simple truth – that most people are unfamiliar with and thus cannot relate to the forces that govern their lives – has been the theme that Le Pen and her comrades have hammered at mercilessly, finally catching the popular mood.

Andrew Stuttaford looks ahead:

The next thing to watch will be the elections to the EU parliament scheduled for late May. On some projections, the National Front (which is, not so incidentally, committed to taking France out of the euro) will come top in the French vote , which would be another sign that economic incompetence and the stifling Europhile consensus of the EU’s establishment  is not only radicalizing increasing numbers of voters, but leaving them with few places to turn other than to parties that were pariahs just a few years ago.